'Game of Thrones' and the Power of Storytelling: Why You Can't Mess With Your Customers' Stories

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Unless you've been living under a rock, you know that HBO aired the final episode of the wildly successful Game of Thrones last week – and fans of the eight-season fantasy drama series had a lot of emotions about it.

The highly polarizing series finale was widely panned on the internet for a variety of reasons. We won't give away any spoilers, but according to a USA Today reader poll, 60 percent of fans disliked it. Even George R. R. Martin, author of the book series that inspired the show, hinted on his blog that the ending of his A Song of Fire and Ice novels will differ from how HBO showrunners closed out the TV series.

Even among those who agreed with the show's direction and felt it wrapped everything up well (like myself), there's the sense that this season was rushed. Season eight had just six episodes, compared to the usual 10, or last season's seven. The story moved too quickly for many viewers, and there just wasn't enough exploration of certain characters' actions and transformations. Some of the characters' fates simply didn't map to fans' expectations. In short, many of us feel cheated by the rush.

The power of a good story

Let's get one thing clear: The Game of Thrones writers do know how important storytelling is. They made that clear in Tyrion Lannister's speech about Bran – the "keeper of all our stories" – in the final episode:

"What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags? Stories. There's nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it. And who has a better story than Bran the Broken?"

(For the record, Twitter users thought a lot of people had a better story than Bran, but that's neither here nor there.)

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Countless thought leadership articles have already emerged around this speech, and it may very well go down as one of television's most quoted monologues. These immensely powerful lines even echo a famous Native American proverb that has held true through generations of human civilization: "Those who tell the stories rule the world."

The thing is, though, you can't just tell any story. It has to be one that makes sense to its audience. The story has to resonate with the journey they're experiencing. As Tyrion says, it has to be a good story.

If you need proof, just look at the backlash over Game of Thrones. Avid fans and even casual viewers are getting bent out of shape debating the finale; that's how much we care about our stories, and more importantly, our expectations for what makes a "good" story.

Meeting your customers in their own stories

So, what does all this mean for brands? What can we learn about storytelling, not only from Tyrion Lannister, but from the way HBO botched the storytelling in Game of Thrones' final season (at least in the eyes of fans)?

It boils down to this: Storytelling has a profound, emotional impact on people. You can't break the expectations of the story in somebody's head about your brand. Instead, you need to invest in a story that engages people and takes them to a place they're happy with.

Why? Because your customers are each living their own stories. Brands have responsibility to understand, respect and meet their customer in that story. More importantly, they must help shape their customer's story to be better and more fruitful and successful – in a way that still benefits your brand.

Ultimately, if you mess with the story your audience is living and invested in, you're not doing yourself any favors. You need to respect the journey they're on as a customer and as a human being, and tell them a story that matches their expectations of your brand.

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog – the finale to our own series on the elements of a strategic messaging foundation – where we'll go in-depth on reference stories and why they're so important for building stories around your customers.

Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Get attention. Be heard. Sell more.

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